Theophrastus’s Satirical Characters

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Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour is a book of character sketches which describes common types that recur in perpetuity. These types survive today. Although we refuse to recognise ourselves among these characters, we all find some individuals here that we know in person. This attractive little book with new illustrations brings these eternal types to a new generation.

Tyrtamus, called Theophrastus (“divine in speech”) (c. 371-c. 287 BC) was a respected philosopher and teacher, who came from Lesbos to join Plato’s Academy, later studying with Aristotle in Athens. He became a favourite student of Aristotle. He survived the vicissitudes of Athenian politics through a combination of wits, rhetoric and popularity. His lectures drew large audiences. He went on to become a wealthy property owner – no mean feat for a foreigner with no voting rights or other entitlements of Athenian citizens. Most of his essays on grammar, ethics, history and nature are lost. His Characters has come down to us in damaged form.

The collection of comic portrait sketches is satirical, mocking the bad behaviour of Athenians, especially their venality. These were written during the immediate post-Alexandrian period, though only mention contemporary events rarely and tangentially and these types are universal rather than specific. Each description is only a page or so long. There is relatively little that is historically dependent in the text. In cases where amounts, places, people and customs are referred to there are footnotes. We pick up on the importance in Alexandrian Athens of public status, private litigation and personal money from Theophrastus’s targets and approaches.

The_Authoritarian

[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Authoritarian (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The Babbler is an incessant talker who bores and distracts all around him. He prevents theatre-goers from enjoying the play and diners from eating in peace. His children tease him by, at bedtime, imploring him to bore them to sleep. The Obnoxious Man exhibits his genitals in public, belches loudly and makes a nuisance of himself at the theatre in order to attract attention. He stops in at the barbershop to announce that he is on his way to get drunk. “The Distrustful Man is the sort who, when he’s sent his slave to do some shopping, sends another along to find out how much the first one spent. Though he’s carrying his money himself, he sits down every two hundred yards to count it.”[i] Theophrastus describes him getting up at night to check that the doors and windows are locked, despite the assurances of his wife.

Particularly good is the Coward, who deliberately hides his sword under the pillow in his tent, so that he has to go through the pantomime of searching for it before he can go out to battle. His terror at being at sea is genuinely comic. The Authoritarian is today’s know-nothing, offering his opinion unwanted; he is the elitist who believes he is immune to the faults he ascribes to others. Others include the Social Climber, the Charlatan, the Vulgar Man (more an inconsiderate man, readers may think), the Arrogant Man and the Slanderer. There are multiple versions of the miser – Theophrastus obviously had strong feelings on the subject of parsimony…

The_Slanderer

[Image: Andre Carrilho, The Slanderer (2018). (c) 2018 Andre Carrilho]

The illustrations by Andre Carrilho are vigorous, bold and highly stylised. Each character gets a drawing. The figures are both ancient and modern. The mixture of sweeping curves in line and shaded details used sparingly is distinctive and redolent of The New Yorker, a publication for which Carrilho has worked. The introduction is informative and the translation is very approachable whilst preserving the literal examples of obols, drachmas and agora as written by Theophrastus. The design is attractive and the binding a handsome scarlet cloth.

 

Theophrastus, Pamela Mensch (trans.), James Romm (introduction), Andre Carrilho (illus.), Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behaviour, Callaway, 2018, cloth hardback, $24.95, 111pp, mono illus., ISBN 978 0 935112 37 5

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art